Online customer behaviour is changing rapidly, how can you track it?

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Customer change can take you by surprise. Witness the experience of the Tesco group. Having previously thrived on the expansion of its superstore network, the company was wrong-footed by a shift in customer preferences. Rather than driving out to a big supermarket to stock up on a week’s groceries, many Tesco customers were instead opting to shop locally two or three times a week.

If anything customer preferences have changed even more markedly when it comes to e-commerce. It wasn’t too long ago that the vast majority of online transactions were carried out by customers using desktop PCs and laptops. Today, the market looks very different. According to research company Statista, mobile devices will account for around 30% of digital transactions in 2015 and that percentage is set to grow.

A complex change

And increased usage of smartphones and tablets is not simply shifting a fixed number of online transactions from one device to another – the mobile revolution is creating more customer journeys. Today’s customer may begin researching a product online while sat at an office PC before venturing out to a high street store to try it out, and finally purchase it using a tablet or smartphone on the train home in the evening. Equally, of course, the customer may buy online and collect at a local depot.

These are profound changes, driven not just by the willingness of consumers to embrace new technology, but also by demographics. For the new upcoming generation of “digital natives”, mobile devices are often the primary tool for going online. They expect to be able to transact on any device at a time of their choosing. What’s more they expect the online experience to be on a par across all those devices. If they don’t accept poor usability on a website rendered on a laptop screen, they won’t accept it on a smartphone. 

New customers arrive, old ones leave

Of course, technology and demographics are not the only drivers of customer change. Rebranding, extending the range of products available or moving into a new territory will bring in new customers. And in the normal course of events there will always be the churn that sees existing customers go elsewhere while new ones come on board. Some existing customers will look to developments on other sites and expect similar innovation in the sites they habitually use.

Staying ahead of the game

Keeping up with the pace of customer change is a major challenge for all web businesses and most are locked into a cycle of constant upgrades and improvements simply to ensure the site remains at least as attractive and usable as its competitors in order to reduce customer churn.

Added to that there is the technical challenge of delivering a compelling and consistent  online experience across the full spectrum of browsers and devices.

And make no mistake, it is a real challenge. A site that works perfectly on a laptop screen may be much less usable on a 5 inch smartphone or even a 7 inch tablet. For instance, key links or buttons may not be visible in the smaller format. And there can even be discrepancies across browsers.

And simply improving a site to make it more attractive to new and existing customers carries its own inherent risks. For instance, by upgrading software components or experimenting with the navigation menus you run the risk of introducing faults or usability problems that weren’t there previously.

Adapt and survive 

So as you adapt your site to match the changing expectations of customers, it is vital to put in place strategies to ensure all your best efforts to improve the experience don’t allow deal-breaking usability, performance and functionality faults to slip in unnoticed. 

Testing is vital but the chances are it won’t pick up on every problem. However, one effective way to identify problems in real time (once improvements have gone live) is to record and playback customer journeys to provide a click-by-click view of how the website is performing from the user’s perspective.

For instance, UserReplay records all customer journeys. When a problem arises – such as an unexpectedly high cart abandonment rate, or an unusual number of drop-offs on a certain page – selected journeys are replayed to establish why this is happening and where customers are hitting obstacles. Once identified, these problems can be quickly rectified.

Keeping up with customer change is vitally important. But it’s also crucial to ensure that improvements and upgrades made in response to changing expectations don’t introduce new problems.